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Harris Wants Funding Boost As State Struggles To Seize Illegal Guns

Mitch Barrie / Flickr

Mitch Barrie / Flickr

Julie Small | KQED | The California Report

California law prohibits felons, people with a history of domestic violence and others with severe mental illness from having guns. It falls to Attorney General Kamala Harris and her Department of Justice to confiscate those guns. But 11,830 people currently banned from having guns may still possess them.

That upsets Amanda and Nick Wilcox, whose daughter Laura was killed by a gunman in Nevada City in 2001 while working at the county behavioral health clinic.

“I was numb for six months," Amanda Wilcox recalls. "I kept pinching myself, thinking I don’t believe this happened. I felt like I was outside my body -- as if something had happened to someone else. It turns your life upside down."

Eventually shock turned into a conviction that Amanda and her husband Nick needed to do more to control access to guns in California.

They joined the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and were instrumental in passing several major gun control laws in recent years, and they’ve steadfastly pushed state lawmakers to fully fund the Department of Justice’s Armed and Prohibited Persons System (APPS).

“Implementing the program is harder than we all envisioned -- certainly for DOJ and certainly for us who advocated for this program in the very beginning," said Wilcox.


A Backlog From the Beginning

APPS uses a database to flag people who legally obtain guns, but later lose the right to have them. Agents at the DOJ track them down and confiscate their guns, a task both dangerous and time-consuming.

The state began using the database in 2006. From day one, there's been a backlog in the system. It reached a peak in 2013.

At a public safety hearing just weeks after the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, legislators were stunned to learn that the list of prohibited gun owners yet to be investigated had reached 20,000.

Bureau of Firearms Chief Stephen Lindley testified that day that the list had expanded that fast because more than 2,000 people were being added each year.

"Despite our best efforts, the bureau does not have the resources to keep up with this annual influx of cases to reduce the backlog," Lindley said.

“How many people, how many guns, what would it cost to get them out of the hands of prohibited people as quickly as possible?” asked Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

Lindley told lawmakers if the bureau could temporarily hire 50 more agents, his department would be able to clear the backlog within three years.

“I believe we can arrest our way -- and investigate our way out of this,” Lindley said.

“It seems to me that an $8 million, a $15 million a $24 million investment in getting guns out of the hands of a prohibited person would be a very wise and worthy investment,” said Steinberg, who was later able to rally bi-partisan support for a one-time allocation of $24 million set to expire this spring.

DOJ agents investigated 20,000 people since then, but in that time as many people were added to the list, leaving a backlog of roughly 12,000.

After the swearing in of Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon at the state Capitol Tuesday, Attorney General Kamala Harris said the $24 million was not enough to get the job done.

“The Armed and Prohibited Persons List is extensive, and it grows every day," Harris told Capitol Public Radio. "It's not just some list that sits there and we just chip away at it. Every day, names are added to that list. I need a lot more resources, frankly, to meet the challenge of -- not only just reducing -- but I want to eliminate that backlog."

Harris is seeking an annual $4.7 million increase for the program.

Growing Gun Purchases and a Growing List

A January 1, 2016 DOJ report to the Legislature cites a surge in gun purchases and new laws that expanded the number of people subject to prohibition.

DOJ officials declined to talk to KQED about the report.

"They have not made it a priority. It's as simple as that," said Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber), who voted for the temporary funding in 2013.

Nielsen, a budget leader in the Republican caucus, has called for a hearing to find out why DOJ did not eliminate the backlog. “They have not really been accountable in telling us what their problem has been. Their answer is ‘we need more money, we need more money, we need more money.’ That is not an answer.”

A 2015 report by the Bureau of State Audits faulted the DOJ for not doing enough to ensure the accuracy of the database and the prompt investigation of people who became prohibited.

The BSA said DOJ had repeatedly cited the “redirecting” of APPS agents to other priority work with a statutory deadline as an obstacle.

Some responsibility lies with local law enforcement for failing to notify DOJ when they confiscate guns. The DOJ reports 500 such instances since 2013.

California Police Chiefs Association President David Bejarano acknowledged law enforcement’s use of APPS got off to a slow start.

"I believe a lot of police departments and sheriff’s departments weren’t fully aware of the APPS system, the database” Bejarano said. “Obviously in light of what we’re seeing nationwide -- with mass shootings occurring too frequently -- I think there’s a refocus to spend more time using the database and we’ve seen an improvement."

Bejarano says DOJ dedicated more time and personnel to work on the APPS backlog and to partner with local law enforcement. He knows of at least 100 joint operations up and down the state.

Bejarano, the Chula Vista police chief, said his officers currently conduct annual sweeps to seize guns using the APPS database.

“The more weapons we remove from the streets -- especially from those who are prohibited from owning or possessing a weapon -- I’m sure that at some point we’re preventing violence and saving some lives," said Bejarano.

Nick Wilcox, whose daughter was killed by a gunman, thinks APPS would be even more effective if California lawmakers fully funded it.

“In an ideal world, they would be disarming these prohibited persons as soon as they became known to DOJ so that you’re not always feeling like you’re on a treadmill going backwards,” Wilcox said.

The Legislature will consider the attorney general’s request for more money to confiscate guns at a hearing in Sacramento on Thursday.

The money would come from a special fund from a $5 fee people pay for each gun they buy in California -- and would have no impact on the state's general fund. Even with more permanent funding, the DOJ projects it will take until 2020 to reduce the backlog to 3,000 people.


California Counts is a collaboration of Capital Public Radio, KPBS, KPCC and KQED to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.
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